What it Takes to Stay at the Forefront of Case Design

By Chris Mills on at

The breakneck speed of phone launches nowadays has an impact on more than just our wallets: for every new phone sold, case manufacturers have to come up with an assortment of cases to cosset, care for and otherwise maximally pimp the new hardware. So, we caught up with a few of Griffin's designers to see what it's really like for the poor sods that have to design the damn things.

First things first, case designers are more than the skinny-jeans-clad hipsters you might imagine them to be. Although case design might just seem like it's a case (pardon the terrible pun) of slapping a bit of plastic on the next generic glass/metal slab, the tolerances involved in getting it right are millimetric, and it requires a real engineer to get the design right.

Enter the designers. Dan Poon is the dude ultimately responsible for all the hard-moulded cases Griffin churns out, including the things like the well-known Survivor line. Hard- moulded cases present a particular design challenge nowadays: "Screens are getting bigger and bigger and the bezels are getting smaller and smaller. That certainly makes it difficult for a case designer like myself to design something that can both protect and complement these devices."

Soft cases are no easier. Although they are often less functional -- just bits of fabric/chamois leather depending on the precise hipster-level you've attained -- the fundemental process of design still presents challenges. Paul Grote, the Griffin Senior Designer for Cut and Sew cases (soft cases, to you and me), notes that

"creating a cohesive product while working with different mediums can be challenging. I strive to find a way to construct a soft product around a hard slab of aluminum or plastic and make them look like they belong together."

Anyone who's ever seen a beautiful metal-bodied phone ruined by a swarth of cheap pleather will get the issues here.

The headaches for the designers start well before the product's launched, though. The case market is huge and booming -- as smartphones get more expensive, and contracts sell our souls for longer and longer, people are getting increasingly concerned with protecting their devices. Griffin tussles for the top-dog slot with Belkin, and a large part of staying numero uno is getting a case out on time.

Sadly, the notoriously secretive phone manufacturers don't exactly send phone samples around for all and sundry (even if it doesn't always seem that way). Designing a case is a long process -- once the boffins get their hands on a device, they first have to dream up a design, prototype it, test it, get all the tooling built, and then get production lines up and running.

Doing all that takes a heck of a lot of time, and there's a lot of dough at stake, so in the run-up to a major product launch, they'll monitor the rumour-mill and grape vine closely, to start thinking about what they'll design given a particular case:

"It becomes a good brainstorming exercise for us as we explore all of the ‘what ifs’ that surface from the rumour blogs. We’ll generally develop some proof of concepts based on the rumours and have those lined up in preparation for the real handset unveiling."

Of course, since handsets tend to stay relatively similar year-to-year (*cough* Samsung *cough*), they can work out certain things based on the current mode, as Grote explains:

"We plan as much as possible on an existing device and work out all the construction,
technique, QA, with the current model. Once the new model is introduced, we then transition to the new device form factor. It’s not a perfect process but it helps us to be prepared to make changes quickly, and that’s the name of the game in this industry."

There's some light at the end of the tunnel, though -- Poon says that it's "really gratifying" to walk into a shop and see the wall adorned with his cases. It's gotta be tough, though -- just like those dudes who paint the Golden Gate Bridge on repeat all their lives, case design is a never-ending process.